It was summertime and our family spent over a month motor-touring—camping out of the back of a red-and-white Oldsmobile station wagon, visiting relatives, national parks, and occasionally staying in motels with swimming pools. I’m able to pinpoint my age at eight years, six months, as my only sibling, Jeff, celebrated his tenth birthday on the road, arranging the candles on his tailgate cake to resemble set-up bowling pins.
Spending a week in Omaha visiting frail and sickly “Grandma Lee” (my father’s agoraphobic mother), cooped-up in her musty, dark-and-dusty, two-story home, we were invited across town to Uncle Ed and Aunt Margaret’s for Sunday supper.
Uncle Ed (Grandma Lee’s brother) met Aunt Margaret (twenty years Ed’s junior) when she worked as a waitress in an Omaha restaurant and coffee shop. Prior to their marriage Aunt Margaret agreed to the following two conditions: One, to convert to Catholicism. And two, to care for Ed’s aging mother.
Swapping waitress for wife, Margaret dutifully honored both conditions.
From what I’ve been told, Edwin J. Krejci, a Czech Republic immigrant and staunch Roman Catholic, had a long-standing non-Catholic “friend” before he met and married Margaret. I can only assume that he and his initial ladylove proved equally headstrong when the subject of religion—weekly mass, fish on Friday, Communion, et cetera, et cetera—reared its ugly head.
Mouth-watering aromas—pot roast ’n fixings—filled the parlor of Uncle Ed and Aunt Margaret’s modest home: a redbrick single-story complimented by green grass, flower beds, large shade trees and (my favorite) darting squirrels. I recall a welcoming, cozy look from the curb, and a clean, well-kept interior. Equally vivid in my memory is how Aunt Margaret spoke to Uncle Ed, although “spoke” may be a weak choice of words. She nagged, barked, and roared—bossing him mercilessly. “Ed!” she’d scream in a chalkboard-scraping tone. “Turn up your hearing aids! What’s the matter with you?!” Uncle Ed, sunken in an overstuffed chair, cane tilted by his side, appeared unruffled and resigned. Eventually, dutifully, he’d fumble with his hearing aids.
Why does she shout at him so? I inwardly questioned. Feeling uneasy, I scooted closer to my mother on our doily adorned settee.
Margaret was good to our family over the years. Destined to clash with my “difficult” father, she was kind to my mother. She’d sew matching dresses and shirts for me and Jeff, and come December the mailman would deliver a big, brown, securely tied package. Diving in we’d discover festively wrapped gifts galore. In most cases, they’d contain hankies, PJs, knitted slippers, broken candy canes, or fruitcake in a tin. But we didn’t care, there was something for everybody.
Months before Uncle Ed’s death, his physical health and mental faculties failing, Aunt Margaret gained control of his finances. This assertive accomplishment sent my blood-is-thicker-than-loyalty father straight to an attorney.
And eventually to court.
I honestly don’t recall how the matter ended; I was in high school at the time and my parents were divorcing, but I do recall siding with Aunt Margaret.
The last time I saw Margaret was in the summer of 1985 at her home in Cozad, Nebraska, a tiny farming community in the middle of the state. She and Ed moved there in the mid-sixties to be near her brother and nieces and nephews. My then-husband, young son, and I were returning by car to California, having visited Grandma Lee in Omaha and spent time with members of my husband’s family in Lincoln.
Aunt Margaret hadn’t changed over the years, other than more wrinkles and gray hair. She was still slightly heavy, smiling, and her chalkboard-scraping voice and energy-sporting personality continued to prove her two most identifiable traits. She was surprised and happy to see the three of us. “Who’s this?!” she hollered, squinting, squeaky front-screen door swinging. “Who? … Oh, my heavens!” Her green eyes lit up as her free hand found her heart. “Merciful, merciful heavens!”
We had taken a chance and shown up in Cozad unexpectedly. My husband and young son had yet to experience Aunt Margaret but had heard of her idiosyncrasies from my mother. The small, rickety structure she called home was a sight. She invited the three of us inside but we didn’t (couldn’t) sit. Stacks of boxes, yellowing paperbacks, newspapers, catalogs, and magazines threatened the ceiling, while miscellaneous, clutter—not to mention six or seven sluggish felines—blanketed the furniture and floor. “Just shoo them out of the way,” Aunt Margaret instructed, waving a flappy arm at floating hair. (Conjure up in your senses a mingling of humid midwestern heat, cat urine, and open cans of Fancy Feast.)
We walked to downtown Cozad, snapped pictures, enjoyed ice-cold bottles of root beer from a top-opening machine and visited Margaret’s younger brother Harold on the job. As the owner of a successful trucking company, Harold treated my husband and son to a quick loop through the fields in a shiny, detailed sixteen-wheeler.
Our final—yes, Aunt Margaret saved the best for last—stop of the afternoon remains my most memorable. The sun shone bright, the air hanging still, the grass a prickly splotchy-brown, and our T-shirts clung to our skin as the three of us admired the gravestones of Aunt Margaret’s parents and relations. Listening attentively to the anecdotal significance behind each engraved saying, each etched image, it wasn’t until we paid our respects to Uncle Ed, snapped a picture of his gravestone, that Aunt Margaret’s tone and sense of exhilaration softened.
And her grandniece-by-marriage witnessed tears well up in those spirited and expressive green eyes…
An unquestionably heart-tugging experience.
On the road again, following hugs and goodbyes and promises to return, the three of us laughed and reiterated for miles.
“She’s too much … so funny … and so darn loud!”
Nancy VanDusen, a retired teacher, lives in Palm Desert, California. She writes novels for middle-grade children, creative nonfiction/memoir pieces, poetry, and fiction short stories. Her work has appeared online in Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Ruminate Magazine’s blog, The Waking, Wilderness House Literary Press, Blunt Moms, and Beautiful, Sweetycat Press’s anthology of stories and poems.